Comment - How Jose Mourinho has rebranded his image, why Spurs are the real deal and Liverpool's new backbone in our weekend review
If there was to be a twist in what has appeared to be a one-team Premier League title race, it was always likely to come in the weekend just gone and so it proved as Chelsea’s lead at the top was trimmed to just four points.
Here is your Independent.ie guide to a weekend that banished a few myths and cemented the suspicion that Tottenham may yet finish this season as champions.
EVOLVING MOURINHO SHOWS HE CAN EMBRACE CHANGE
It has been easy to write off Jose Mourinho as a fading managerial force as his sacking at Chelsea last season has been backed up by his less than impressive debut campaign as Manchester United manager, yet his tactical master class at Old Trafford on Sunday suggested reports of his demise may have been premature.
Amid his mood swings, tiresome grumpiness, endless conspiracy theories and a dangerous eagerness to publicly humiliate his own players, Mourinho gave the world a glimpse of just what his Manchester United team could look like next season with a masterfully executed plan to beat title leaders Chelsea 2-0.
By man marking Blues star man Eden Hazard and playing a brand of attacking football Antonio Conte's side could not handle, Mourinho gave a hint of what may be to come at United next season, as he eagerness to embrace youthful players was in evidence once more.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s 28 goals in his debut season at United have created the impression that Mourinho’s side have relied on the contributions of the veteran Swede,yet Mourinho’s side looked more mobile and dynamic in the final third with the youthful combination of Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard giving Chelsea's heralded defensive line real trouble from first to last.
With Ibrahimovic’s future uncertain as he stalls on signing a contract extension at United, it was intriguing to see the coach noted for his reluctance to give young talent a chance during his decorated coaching career showing so much faith in fledging talent against the title favourites.
Would Mourinho have started with two young, homegrown players for a big game at Old Trafford if he was still Chelsea manager? It is doubtful, yet the duo delivered for him on a day that allowed United fans to remember how it felt to support the best team in England for one day at least.
Minutes given to teenagers in Premier League this season:— Premier League Bible (@PremBible) April 16, 2017
"Mourinho doesn't play kids" pic.twitter.com/t4FgRNqnhO
“Everyone was trying to say that young players would have difficulties to play with me, but Rashford has always been on the pitch,” states Mourinho of the 19-year-old who has made 39 first team appearances for United this season.
“The same with Lingard, always on the pitch and I give other young players a chance as well.”
Mourinho has admitted he has felt compelled to change his natural instincts to embrace a more attack minded game since he took over as United boss and he has also been forced to go against his convictions to hand plenty of first team chances to youthful players.
While Mourinho appears to have given up on trying to develop the youthful talents of defender Luke Shaw and striker Anthony, the faith he is showing in Rashford, Lingard is backed up the reality that they have made 75 first team appearances between them in all competitions this season.
Mourinho must have believed that he could make Chelsea dance to his tune on and off the pitch until his sacking in December 2015, but he knows that United boast a bigger aura in football than he - or any single individual will ever command.
One big win against Chelsea does not revive Mourinho’s tarnished image in an instant, but the manner of his side’s success of Sunday suggests he is finally worked out how to be manager of Manchester United.
WHY TOTTENHAM ARE ACTUALLY BETTER THAN CHELSEA
Only 12 Chelsea players have started more than 10 Premier League games this season.
It is a remarkable statistic that confirms Blues boss Antonio Conte has been hugely fortunate to avoid injuries and suspensions over the course of this campaign, with the absence of keeper Thibaut Courtois and Marcos Alonso contributing to his side’s 2-0 defeat against Manchester United on Sunday.
Meanwhile, their closest rivals Tottenham continue to win matches in a season when their crowded fixture list has contributed to a series of high profile absentees for manager Mauricio Pochettino to contend with.
With key defenders Danny Rose and Toby Alderweireld, midfielders Eric Lamela (remember him!) and Mousa Dembele joining leading scorer Harry Kane in the treatment room over the course of this campaign, Spurs have proved that they have the back-up talent to plug the gaps when required.
They are also building up an aura that intimidates opponents, especially when they travel to their White Hart Lane fortress.
Saturday’s thumping 4-0 win against Bournemouth secured a 12th successive hime win and with leaders Chelsea showing signs of frailty as they look to cement their position as champions-elect, Spurs are suddenly eyeing up their first league title since 1961.
Next Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final against Antonio Conte’s Blues at Wembley offers Spurs a big chance to inflict another wound or two of their chief rivals and if they succeed in that mission, the most attractive team to watch in the Premier League can dare to dream that the rewards their classy football merits may yet come their way.
KLOPP FINDS LIVERPOOL’S BACKBONE
Who expected an injury-hit Liverpool side to emerge from away games against Stoke and West Bromwich Albion with six points?
In the absence of key attacking stars Adam Lallana and Sadio Mane, a Liverpool side that have shown fragility against opponents that build their success around a physical approach that relies heavily on success from set-pieces appeared to be the nightmare scenario for manager Jurgen Klopp.
Yet his side’s comeback victory against Stoke and their battling victory against West Brom on Sunday confirmed that Klopp is adding a degree of backbone to a team that had hitherto struggled to master the art of the grinding victory.
Games against Crystal Palace, Watford, Southampton, West Ham and Middlesbrough now stand between Liverpool a place in next season’s Champions League, with Klopp’s men defying some of their doubters as they edge towards an improbable top four finish.
INDEPENDENT.IE TEAM OF THE WEEKEND
Simon Mignolet (Liverpool)
Eric Bailly (Manchester United)
Vincent Kompany (Manchester City)
Marcos Rojo (Manchester United)
Ross Barkley (Everton)
Ander Herrera (Manchester United)
Son Heung-min (Tottenham)
Ashley Young (Manchester United)
Leroy Sane (Manchester City)
Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
Harry Kane (Tottenham)